Posted: July 17, 2003
SUSSEX REPUBLICANS GO FOR BYRNE
By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer
Phyllis M. Byrne, known for the hours she puts
in on Republican causes, has been elected the Sussex County party
chairwoman, although it took a circuitous route for her to get
Byrne won the right Monday evening to serve
out the unexpired four-year term of Keller Hopkins, who resigned in
May from the top post in the most Republican of Delaware's three
counties to spend more time on his construction firm. Her tenure
will last until April 2005.
Byrne defeated John L. Rieley in a vote by
secret ballot, 27-19 with two abstaining, at a meeting at the
Delaware Technical & Community College campus in Georgetown.
"I believe people know how hard I work," Byrne
said. "I have a pretty strong following in the county."
The election moved Byrne up from the Sussex
vice chairwoman, a post she assumed in 2001, and Rieley agreed
immediately after the vote to accept the second ranking spot.
Byrne is a Lewes resident who can be found
seemingly always at the county party headquarters in Georgetown. Her
Republican credentials include work as a White House aide for George
H.W. Bush, the father of the current president.
Rieley is a Millsboro poultry farmer who
challenged state Sen. George H. Bunting Jr., a Bethany Beach
Democrat, in the 20th Senatorial District in 2002.
For a time it was Rieley who appeared to have
the Sussex chairmanship sewn up. After Hopkins resigned, the county
Republicans set up a search committee, chaired by state Sen. Gary F.
Simpson of Milford, to nominate a replacement. After Byrne said
initially she wasn't interested in the job, Rieley emerged as a
likely possibility, but Byrne later reconsidered.
The committee interviewed both of them and
recommended Rieley, Simpson said.
Then came talk that there might not even be an
election. The party bylaws provided for the vice chair to take over
if the top post opened up, which meant Byrne could claim it if she
It was a situation that could have festered.
Then J. Everett Moore Jr., a Georgetown lawyer who stepped down in
May as the Republican state chairman, warned that an election was
essential to the interests of the party. Moore may not have a title
these days, but he remains perhaps the most influential Sussex
County Republican, and plans for an election proceeded.
"We have to have an election so that we can
let the committee people decide," Moore said.
The vote was scheduled for a meeting last
month, but there were questions about whether a quorum was present,
so it was postponed until Monday. The delay apparently helped Byrne
to build her support.
There was more at stake for the Republican
Party than a simple contest for county chair, because Sussex has
become fundamental to its fortunes. For example, a heavy Republican
turnout there in 2002 salvaged a victory for Attorney General M.
Jane Brady and let the party roar to a 29-12 edge in the state House
Moore warned that a split in county ranks
would be damaging to William Swain Lee, the Sussex retired judge who
is the front-runner for the 2004 gubernatorial nomination in an
underdog role against Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, the first-term Democrat.
"We have to come out of this united. We have
to elect a Sussex County governor," Moore said.
Lee pronounced himself satisfied with the
outcome. He did not take sides and was safely upstate at a
Republican function when the election took place. "The result was
probably the best one," he said. "Phyllis has built up a lot of
loyalty. John is a relative newcomer, but he is now a factor in the
Sussex unity may or may not turn out to be
elusive, but at least there were no questions raised about the
legitimacy of the election. Bradley Layfield, the treasurer who
oversaw the vote, took care of that when he gave instructions for
filling out the ballots.
"Make sure you write only one name. We don't
want another Florida incident," Layfield said.
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